How can Facebook and Google tell the US government to limit surveillance, and then ask for more scope for snoop themselves, asks Tom Brewster
It was somewhat surprising to see The Guardian this morning leading with the headline: “Internet giants demand sweeping changes to US laws”. The companies embroiled in the NSA snooping saga – Facebook, Yahoo, Google and Microsoft – have been on the PR trail ever since the Snowden revelations broke, protesting their innocence of collusion with the government. Today’s news seems to be more of the same.
Just a matter of months’ ago the big web companies were the enemy, suspected of doing the government’s dirty work, but their apparent ire, and their requests for more openness, have batted away much suspicion. Today, they have written to President Obama, demanding the NSA and other agencies stop bulk data collection, a move which seems to extend that campaign in a more formalised, cohesive manner. Little is new or surprising here.
One rule for you , one rule for us?
But there is a disturbing paradox in one of the demands: that governments should “not inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country”. Borderless data can be a wonderful thing. But these are companies desperate to get their hands on people’s information for their own profits. As they ask the government to slow its data gathering, in the very same breath, they have asked for their own information collection capabilities to be widened.
Startling, isn’t it? It’s worrying that even when trying to do something seemingly altruistic, these firms can’t resist the temptation to ask for wider access to data. No surprise Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Larry Page are signatories on the open letter to government.
Equally perturbing is that the changes being demanded by the Reform Government Surveillance crew can easily be rebuffed by the NSA. The tech titans demand governments limit its authority to access citizens’ data, to “codify sensible limitations on their ability to compel service providers to disclose user data”. There should be oversight from an independent court too, they say. And transparency on the scope of NSA data collection is needed.
To most of these requests, the government can and will say it already has many of those safeguards in place and is working on the others. As we’ve seen in our own questioning of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ heads, weak questions allow for strong answers.
In the UK, we still don’t appear to give a damn. That’s partly because no companies appear willing to lobby the government on the issue, whilst citizens are happy for the snoops in Cheltenham to carry on doing what they’re doing. With our stiff upper lip, we’ve accepted infringements on our privacy in return for ostensibly better security. Despite being home to the best-known author/prophet of government control, George Orwell, Brits care less about privacy than Americans.
This has become an American narrative now. It will be a story full of glib politicians and businessmen, perpetuating a PR campaign the like of which we’ve never seen before, as corporations team together with the same Mel Gibson cry of “FREEDOM!”, whilst trampling our privacy elsewhere on a grand scale. The US government will join in with its own show, rearranging some laws, but still permitting mass spying by the NSA, or some other secretive organisation. The mechanisms of control will remain in place, only working in a more surreptitious way.
In the end, those who look behind the PR will find only anti-climax.
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